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NBA AM: Aldridge Rushes Return As Blazers Struggle

With the Portland Trail Blazers struggling, LaMarcus Aldridge is trying to return as soon as possible. … Indiana Pacers concerned about their slump

Alex Kennedy

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Aldridge Rushes Return As Blazers Struggle

After an incredible start to the season that saw the Portland Trail Blazers exceed all expectations, the team has dropped nine of their last 13 games and slipped to the fifth seed in the Western Conference.

While other West contenders such as the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets have played some of their best basketball in recent weeks and seem poised to enter the postseason with momentum, Portland has struggled mightily. Making the playoffs seemed inevitable weeks ago, but now the Blazers are just two and a half games ahead of the ninth-seeded Phoenix Suns.

The Blazers have dropped games against non-playoff teams like the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers this month, and they needed overtime to defeat the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks. After Tuesday’s loss to Orlando, Damian Lillard said that this was the low point of the season and Robin Lopez wondered aloud if the team understood the importance of this final stretch.

Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge has had to watch the team’s struggles from a distance as he’s nursing a back contusion that has sidelined him for seven straight games. The injury occurred on March 12, when Aldridge’s back slammed to the floor after a collision with Spurs center Aron Baynes. The team clearly misses Aldridge, who is averaging 23.4 points and 11.1 rebounds this season. He’s an integral part of Portland’s attack on both ends of the floor, filling the stat sheet and creating opportunities for others.

The star power forward wanted to play on Tuesday against the Magic, but had trouble running prior to the game. He’ll try to practice at full speed on Wednesday, facing contact for the first time, and then attempt to return for Portland’s game against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday.

“I wanted to play tonight, but I can’t run,” Aldridge said following the Blazers’ loss to the Magic. “So if you can’t run then what do you do? I’ve been wanting to come back. I didn’t think it would take this long, but it ended up being more serious than we thought it was. I’ve just been trying to get back out there. It’s a process and we’ve done everything that we can do, the medical staff and myself. I’m going to work out tomorrow and see how it feels. … I’m trying to go no matter what [on Thursday]. If I look good enough to play, then I’m going to play. It’s on the medical staff.”

Aldridge’s mobility has been the biggest issue as he tries to come back. The back contusion is limiting his movement, which has kept him from getting back on the court.

“It messes with your running,” Aldridge said. “The last couple of days have been better, so that’s been positive. … It’s gotten better. The last two days it has been better, but it’s not normal. I still had a discomfort running and that’s why I wasn’t out there, I couldn’t really move. But the last two days have been great.

“It’s not really my game that I’m worried about, it’s just being able to move. I mean my lateral quickness seems fine, it’s just running. I hit that spot, and when you flex back your glute, it touches that spot that I really knocked hard on the floor, so that’s my only worry.”

Having to sit back and watch the Blazers drop game after game has been hard on Aldridge, and he admits that he’s trying to get back from injury as soon as possible because of the current state of the team.

“It makes me want to play even worse, yes it does,” Aldridge said. “But it’s not about me, it’s about the medical staff and when they say I can play. I’ve been wanting to play, but honestly if you can’t move then you can’t play. …  It’s been hard because I know what I can help with at times, I’ve seen areas where I can make guys’ life easier out there. I know at times they can use what I do, so it’s been hard to watch. But I had to do it, I had no choice. I’ve tried to take what I saw and tried to store it in my memory so when I start playing again I know what I saw and I make sure I don’t do it. I can’t sit for long periods of time [watching the games], so I’m up and down, talking to the TV, pacing around, things like that.”

When asked what’s wrong with the Blazers, Aldridge said that he thinks the team is worn down.

“Guys are tired,” Aldridge said. “It’s a tough road trip and our shots aren’t falling right now. Guys are competing and playing hard and playing the right way, it’s just guys are just tired. Hopefully I can come back next game and try to help out with that. Guys are playing hard, it’s just our shots are not falling and guys are just tired. … [I can tell from the] body language. Guys are trying, but they’re, like, one step slow. I know guys want to win and I know all these guys work hard, it’s just we are one step slow.

“There’s a sense of urgency to get wins, as there should be. We definitely let ourselves slide too far. We all want to get wins right now and we understand the magnitude of trying to trying to take care of business right now, so I think everybody knows the importance of winning. … I’m trying to stay in the moment. We need wins. I want to get healthy. I want to play again. That’s my main focus right now.”

The three-time All-Star hasn’t been vocal during Portland’s slump, letting the players on the floor figure things out while he’s recovering.

“Not really, it’s tough; [I feel like] if you’re not playing then you don’t do too much talking,” Aldridge said. “I’ve said things to certain people, but I haven’t been very vocal since I’ve been out because if I’m not out there battling with you then I don’t feel like I should be saying too much.”

Aldridge was sidelined with a groin injury in February, and it took him awhile to get back into a rhythm once he returned. He doesn’t believe that will be the case this time around, since he has been able to stay active while he has been out.

“I’ve had more time this time to work out,” Aldridge said. “Last time, I went from nothing to full speed to playing. This time is more of a transition period of ‘let’s see you run, let’s see you shoot.’ So I’ve worked out the last three to four days, it’s been more stationary shooting and minimal movement. I’ve had more time to really find my rhythm. Last time I went from sitting on my couch and I couldn’t move to playing. This time has been more of a transition period, so I think I’ll be fine.”

The Blazers are 45-27 and if the playoffs started today, they would face the Rockets in the first round.

Pacers Concerned About Recent Slump

For much of the season, the Indiana Pacers have been a juggernaut and clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference. While they still sit atop the East with a 51-20 record, the team has been playing poorly lately, struggling on the offensive end and dropping seven of 14 games in March.

After adding Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner last month, it seemed like the Pacers were going to take their game to another level and solidify themselves as arguably the best team in basketball. That hasn’t happened, as Indiana’s offense has sputtered and the team has entered their worst slump of the season.

“It just seems like we’re not clicking,” Roy Hibbert told USA TODAY’s Jeff Zillgitt. “We should be clicking right now toward the end of the season.”

“Our execution isn’t where we want it to be,” Paul George said. “We’re nowhere near where we want to be as far as screening, setting guys up, moving with some energy and cutting off the ball. Everything’s just lackadaisical. That’s going to get you beat.”

The Pacers’ points per game and shooting percentage have dipped in March, and the team is scoring 99.4 points per 100 possessions. Indiana’s offense is 22nd in points per game, and it’s clear the players are concerned about how they’ll fare in the postseason with such a glaring hole.

“I just look at other teams’ play and they just swing, swing, swing the ball and somebody gets an open shot or a wide-open layup,” Hibbert said. “How do we get those types of shots where we don’t have to heave something up at the end of the shot clock? With that type of stuff, you can’t get into a rhythm. It’s just not one-on-one basketball.”

While the Pacers shouldn’t have any trouble early in the playoffs considering how weak the East is, they could run into issues when facing the Miami HEAT or, if they represent the East in the Finals, one of the Western Conference’s contenders.

“If we do get that point [in the playoffs] and face those guys (the HEAT) again – if we do – we have to figure this thing out now because they’re such a good team, they’re going to sniff that out,” Hibbert said.

“We have to do a better job of playing with more energy,” George added. “We’ve just been dead, it seems, on the court lately. That’s not us. We used to be a team that played with a lot of energy. I thought we kind of lost that. … I don’t know what happened to it, where it went, but we’re going to need that because that’s when we’re special.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

Sources: Gregg Popovich, Kawhi Leonard Held Meeting on Tuesday

Basketball Insiders

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San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard met with coach Gregg Popovich on Tuesday in San Diego, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The meeting between the two faces of the Spurs’ franchise was done professionally and confidentially, league sources said.

Source: Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports

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NBA Daily: Lots Of NBA Draft Chatter

With the 2018 NBA Draft less than 50 hours away, Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler digs into the last from around the NBA.

Steve Kyler

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Lots Of NBA Draft Chatter

With the 2018 NBA Draft on Thursday, things in NBA circles are getting interesting, specifically on the trade front.

The final 2018 Consensus Mock Draft will drop tomorrow, just after the media availabilities in New York, from there we’ll be tracking the minute to minute news, trades and rumors in the 2018 NBA Draft Diary.

So, with that in mind, let’s dig into what we know some 50 hours until the draft gets underway.

Kawhi Watch In Full Swing

With the news last week that San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard may no longer want to be a Spur breaking, there is still a sense in NBA circles that the Spurs are not going to listen to trade offers until the hear from Kawhi directly.

If you know anything about the Spurs organization, you know that we won’t hear the details of this situation in a minute by minute way like we do from some organizations, especially considering the Spurs have never had to deal with a scenario quite like this.

The interesting part of this story is how split the “sourcing” is on what’s real. There have been reports from several different reporters suggesting that the situation isn’t as dire as initially reported and that the Spurs and Leonard have had dialogue, but not the face-to-face meeting the Spurs covet.

It’s unclear why there hasn’t been a meeting, and that is what has some in NBA circles believing the Spurs will open up the phones on Wednesday and see what they can extract for Leonard if only to do their due diligence.

One league source commented that it might be tough for the Spurs to get value out of Leonard mainly because of his injury situation and the idea that he’d only re-sign with the Lakers. The same source doubted that Leonard’s camp would fence themselves inmto just the Lakers because that would make getting him traded extremely difficult, especially if the Lakers wouldn’t offer value to San Antonio.

The sense today is the Spurs are standing their ground. The thing to know is that this situation still seems very fluid, and that face-to-face conversation (or lack of one) could swing this thing in either direction. It is clear several teams would have interest if the Spurs decide to listen to offers, even if it just a rental for the upcoming season.

Trades At The Top Still Viable

It a typical NBA draft there is chatter about top tier picks being traded, but usually, it dies off the week for the draft as teams look in on who they ultimately want to draft.

This year, and unlike previous years there is a sense that several of the picks at the top of the board could be had, especially if it returns draft picks later in the draft and solid veterans.

The Sacramento Kings seem to be leaning towards keeping their pick at number two, and it’s looking more and more likely that Marvin Bagley III is their guy. The Kings took a very long look at Michael Porter Jr, and as of this weekend there was a sense they were OK with where Porter Jr is at medically, but he may lose out to the less risky Bagley. League sources continue to doubt the Kings grab Euro sensation Luke Dončić, so we’ll see if that holds true as we get to draft day.

The Atlanta Hawks have had the third overall pick on the market from almost the moment they landed it. The Hawks seem ready to use the pick but are said to still be exploring their options. The prevailing thought this week is it’s down to Bagley, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young for the Hawks, with more and more league sources believing the Hawks will draft Young at three. While the notion of grabbing Young at three may seem high, the Hawks have had eyes on Young from the start of the process, and not much seems to have changed. The Hawks have made it clear they would take on contract money in exchange for additional draft assets, so it seems likely the Hawks will be active, even if it’s not moving the third pick.

Things start to get interesting with Memphis at number four. There have been numerous reports that the Grizzlies have dangled the fourth pick in an attempt to shed the contract of Chandler Parsons. Sources close to the situation say the Grizzlies have had some offers, and most of them involve the Grizz picking up expiring contracts and additional draft assets lower in the draft. It’s unclear if the Grizzlies will pull the trigger, but they seem to have deals if they want one.

The prevailing thought in NBA circles is the Grizzlies are the first real landing spot for Dončić. There is also talk of Wendell Carter Jr., and Mo Bamba landing at four.

The Dallas Mavericks at five seem open to taking on contract dollars and could be the landing spot for the fourth pick and Chandler Parsons, but league sources say the Mavericks would not give up the fifth pick unless it returned an All-Star or would-be All-Star.

There are a few other situations to watch as several teams have expressed interest in moving up. The Clippers hold two pretty solid selections and 12 and 13 and seem willing to combine them to move into the top 5. The Denver Nuggets have also expressed some interest in moving to the top five.

The Lakers and Celtics have expressed similar interest at points in the process, but both seem reluctant at this point to part with future assets to pay the price to jump to the top of the draft.

Porter Still A Possibility

The Michael Porter Jr. situation is murky. After two visits from NBA teams, the word on Porter is mixed. NBA teams have seen his MRIs and his medical, and select teams were allowed to bring their doctors and trainers to his most recent “workout.”

The worst case from one team that’s not considering him is that he may require an additional surgery down the line. This same team said their doctors didn’t think anything going on with Porter would jeopardize his career, but they felt like he’d have to be on a program and has a ways to go before they’d deem him a 100 percent.

The upside case, from a team with Porter squarely on their board, is that there wasn’t anything going on they didn’t expect and that their staff felt fairly positive they could not only manage his situation, but they felt they could get him right fairly quickly.

Amusingly, the narrative around Porter is that he could be the next Kevin Durant-type scorer in the NBA (Porter clearly isn’t as long and lanky as Durant) – but he does possess the ability to get his offense against almost anyone.

As one executive whose team wasn’t considering Porter joked, you could get Durant or you could get Greg Oden, hinting at the injury-riddled career of the former top pick back in 2007.

Where Does Luka Go?

There isn’t a more polarizing NBA Draft prospect than Real Madrid’s Luke Dončić. You would be hard-pressed to find an NBA executive who didn’t think Dončić could be special in the NBA. But you might also be hard-pressed to find one willing to bet their job on it.

Throughout this process, more than a couple of executives have expressed they are hopeful Dončić goes high, mainly because it would give them cover in future drafts to do the same thing, which is draft what appears to be the most NBA ready player in the class, despite his flaws.

The problem is if Dončić isn’t special or struggles like some have concerns he might, not only would a team leave a potential franchise cornerstone on the board to in passing on uber-talented collegiate prospects, it might cost the lead executive their jobs.

While that seems somewhat short-sighted, think about the executives drafting in the top six. How many are not under pressure to turn their franchises around? And would a huge draft miss seal their fate?

Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk at three seems pretty secure. Dallas’ Donnie Nelson at five seems pretty secure. Orlando’s Jeff Weltman and John Hammond at six seem fairly secure, but it gets dicey elsewhere in the top 10.

As we’ve seen in previous drafts, NBA executives can and often do outthink themselves, which why every draft has quality impact guys falling later in the process.

There is little doubt Dončić is going in the top 10; it would be pretty surprising if he got past Dallas at five.

Sexton Over Young?

The Orlando Magic seems to be dialing in on what’s there for them at six, assuming they don’t trade up, which they have explored with both Atlanta and Memphis. The prevailing thought among fans is that if Trae Young is there at six, the Magic will pounce.

Early on in the process, though, the Magic seemed to be seriously interested in Collin Sexton, and word is that be might the Magic’s guy at six. The Magic ultimately will catch what falls to them, and if Dončić, Bagley or Jackson are there, things get interesting. However, if the draft goes as scripted, Orlando seems more likely to go, Sexton, Bamba, Carter or Knox than Young – at least at this point.

The draft is a fluid domino effect process, so at six the Magic have to cover a lot of bases, and it seems they have with their individual workouts.

The Magic desperately covet an impact player, so don’t be surprised if the Magic pull the trigger on a move-up deal, especially as we get closer and closer to the moment of truth.

Bamba Could Slide

You won’t find many NBA executives who don’t find Texas big man Mo Bamba intriguing. The problem for Bamba if there are some many super talented bigs in the 2018 NBA draft he is caught in a numbers game.

League sources said recently that Bamba is in the mix at two to the Kings, four to Grizzlies, five to Mavericks, six to the Magic and seven to the Bulls. The problem is he doesn’t seem to be the first or second option to any of those teams at this point.

According to league sources there continues to be questions about how his offensive game fits into the modern NBA, and with more versatile guys sitting at the top of the draft, Bamba is looking more like the consolation prize later in the draft. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think Bamba will be a monster defensively in the NBA, but the question remains which team is drafting defense at the top of the board?

If there is a player outside of the top five that could tumble a little, it might be Bamba, especially if the Mavericks pass at five.

Over the next few days, we’ll be posting all of the draft-related news, notes, rumors and trades in the 2018 NBA Draft Day Diary, so if you want a one-stop shop for all things NBA Draft, bookmark it.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Kaiser Gates Determined To Silence His Doubters

He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Kaiser Gates knows what he’s made of.

Spencer Davies

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If you’re looking to further your career at the next level but coming out of college as a prospect on the fringe, you’d better be willing to work twice as hard to draw attention from the basketball world.

Attending the Preparation Pro Day in Miami with team representatives and scouts watching, Kaiser Gates wanted to show everybody who was there that the chip on his shoulder would drive him to silence his doubters.

“I feel like I have a lot to prove,” Gates said in Miami. “I feel like a lot of the guys in the draft this year, I’m just as good if not better than (them), so I gotta show that.”

After three years at Xavier University, the 22-year-old decided it was time to move on from the program and passed on his senior year to enter the NBA Draft. The news came as a surprise to many, considering he might’ve gotten the opportunity to earn an even more expanded role next season with the departure of Musketeer favorites Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura.

The numbers across the board weren’t exactly eye-catching. Primarily a wing, Gates knocked down 37.8 percent of his threes as a junior. He averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in almost 24 minutes per game.

Looking at conference play in the Big East, those figures took a dip. Gates shot less than 30 percent from deep and really struggled to contribute offensively for Xavier against tougher opponents.

There was an incredible discrepancy in shot selection over his three-year collegiate career. Astoundingly enough, 300 of his 409 career attempts came outside of the arc. The other 109 tries were twos, which he converted at a 54.1 percent rate.

It’s hard to ignore statistical evidence when it comes to evaluating players, but misuse and fit could have been more prominent factors in this case. It’s something that happens quite a bit at school programs with prospects, and Gates believes that he could be added to that list of mishandled talent.

“I don’t think I’m inconsistent at all,” Gates said. “At Xavier, I know my stats showed that I was inconsistent. Playing at that school it was a great experience—great guys, great coaches.

“Just kinda like my situation and the way I was playing at that school didn’t really allow me to showcase my full talents, and with that being said, it’s kinda hard to stay consistent not doing something I’m used to doing.”

Furthering the point, it’s not easy to be judged off that information, which some use as the only indication of what you’ll bring to the pros. Gates plans on using that as motivation whenever he meets with different teams.

“I would come in and people would just assume like, ‘Oh he could shoot a little bit, play defense, a little athletic.’ But I know on the flip side, I know what I can really do and like, my full potential.

“So when I know that and see what teams already think, already have in their head, just now it’s up to me to prove to them what I can do and show them what I can do.”

So what does that exactly entail?

“My first few years or so, I’ll probably be more of a three-and-D guy—stretch the floor, play defense make hustle plays, rebound the ball, things like that,” Gates said. “But as I’mma grow, (I’ll) look to expand on my game. Maybe work out the pick-and-roll a little bit and expand from there.”

Thus far, the 6-foot-8, 228-pounder has reportedly worked out for multiple organizations, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. He is enjoying the draft process and his growth as a player since it started.

He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Gates knows what he’s made of. And if he can attract the right set of eyes, he’ll be in good shape.

“You could get 30 workouts and that one team could fall in love with you,” Gates said.

“That’s what [my agent] Aaron Turner’s always talking to me about. He’s always said, ‘It only takes one team.’”

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